What is ‘horse therapy’ all about?

Understanding and selecting equine related services means knowing the difference between therapy, equine learning, and therapeutic riding.

For many horse caretakers and enthusiasts, the rising public awareness about ‘horse therapy’ is exciting. For one thing, it increases the relevance and accessibility of horses to the general population. For another, horse facilities can add a service that helps pay for the hay. And, let’s face it, most of us would freely call horses our ‘therapy’. So what is it all about?

Three types of horse therapy

Equine assisted activities can be divided between three main types: equine assisted or facilitated learning (EAL), equine assisted therapy (EAT), and therapeutic riding.  In the first two, riding does not generally occur (it is also excluded from professional liability insurance for EAL and EAT), whereas therapeutic riding is mainly about the riding. There are some other important differences as well. Even though all three can have therapeutic value for a participant, equine therapy is distinguished by involving a credentialed mental health therapist.

Equine assisted therapy (EAT)

In North America, the most common three mental health professions would be psychologists, psychotherapists, and social workers with training in psychotherapy. Actual EAT sessions explore serious problems such as couples’ therapy, mental health conditions such as PTSD or anxiety disorder, or significant developmental disorders such as autism. The purpose of the session is to relieve symptoms of these concerns, or improve function in life or relationships. They should only be conducted by a credentialed mental health professional. Credentialed therapists also need specific training for working with specific issues, such as autism and PTSD, in addition to their degree and credentials.

Typically, actual horse therapy sessions would involve the mental health professional, plus a helper who has had special training in managing the horse safely in the interaction. More rarely, a mental health professional who is also trained and credentialed for equestrian instruction might conduct the session without an extra helper. Therapists with no training or knowledge of horses and safety around horses should not facilitate equine therapy sessions since they do not know how to ensure that their suggested activities for the client keep the client and horse safe (including emotionally).

Equine assisted learning (EAL)

EAL can also work with a person’s inner life, but does so from the perspective of personal self-development and growth, rather than therapy intervention for mental health problems.  A simple analogy of the relationship of equine learning to equine therapy, is that it is a little like what therapeutic recreation or life coaching is to psychotherapy.  There is overlap, such as improving self-confidence or self-esteem, but EAL providers are not trained mental health professionals, so are not trained to facilitate significant mental health or interpersonal relationship improvement.

In most States and Provinces, laws prevent attempting to do so in a professional helping role, without authorized credentialing in mental health. That professional cannot even offer advice for mental health concerns that they might offer friends in their personal life, while in a professional helping relationship with a client due to power imbalance. The service user may be vulnerable, and trusts the service provider to operate within scope, and to keep the client’s best interests first. Practicing out of scope prioritizes the provider’s business, over client safety and need. This is the main reason that mental health is a regulated profession, and only a select range of people with doctoral degrees can actually call themselves ‘Dr.’ in professional service settings. EAL practitioners ideally also have training in how to not cross the therapy line, and in first aid and basic mental health responsiveness such as Mental Health First Aid, so they can keep clients safe and refer them appropriately while avoiding crossing professional boundaries of scope.

Therapeutic riding

Therapeutic riding mostly involves riding instructors specially trained to teach riding to people with significant physical or cognitive disabilities. Some are also trained to do therapeutic riding for mental health conditions. However, the training is about using the riding as therapeutic recreation with physical, cognitive, and emotional rehabilitative value – without crossing the lines of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, or psychotherapy intervention (unless such a credentialed professional is also present and co-facilitating).

Choosing the right avenue

It is very helpful to know what the scope of practice is of the program you are considering in order to be assured of psychological and physical safety. Therapeutic riding and mental health professions are held to high safety training standards and are accountable to governing bodies for ethical conduct. EAL is not, which means that EAL providers may not be aware or always adhere to the limits of their training or insurance, as for example, including riding or attempting to help resolve PTSD.

It can get confusing when an EAL service markets itself as horse therapy, due to there not being restrictions on the term ‘therapy’. A credentialed professional in any of the three equine therapeutic areas will be able to show you proof of training, certification, and insurance that covers the activities they are doing with you.  The following is a summary of the scope of practice and insurance for each.

With a more comprehensive understanding of these three avenues of horse therapy, you’ll be better equipped to choose the right path for you!